Editor’s Choice Award September 2023, Science Fiction

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Murder On Marzanna (prologue + Chapter 1) by Adam G.I. Targill

Every so often with an Editor’s Choice I like to focus on what works in a submission, rather than on what needs work. I think we can learn as much from what’s done right as from what’s not quite there.

It’s challenge enough to write in one genre, and even more so to combine two—in this case, hard SF and murder mysteries. It takes a deft hand and a good grasp of both genres. I like what I’m seeing so far on both fronts.

The best part for me is that the mystery grows out of the science. You can’t have one without the other. The idea of 3-D printing space colonists is one of those things that’s both classic and right up to the minute. I’ve seen variations on it using clones, or data downloads into lab-grown bodies, and of course there’s the Star Trek-style transporter, but this does what science fiction loves to do: it illuminates the future through today’s cutting-edge technology.

That’s why, for me, the exposition works. It answers questions before I can ask them, and clarifies concepts without overwhelming my liberal-arts-major mind with technobabble. The plot keeps moving and the mystery keeps deepening, even while I’m being filled in on essential aspects of worldbuilding. The only quibble I might have is the analogy to a fax machine. That seems antiquated now. Would it even be a thing by the “now” of the novel

One thing that helps a lot is that hard science fiction, as a genre, runs on exposition. I expect it; it’s part of the way the genre works. The same applies to murder mysteries. They’re all about details and procedures. We expect explanations. We want them. That’s how the mystery gets solved—through the accumulation of details that add up to whodunit and why.

I love the balancing act that is Sophia back on Earth, Sophia who gets murdered, and Sophia who has been reprinted from a seven-month-old scan. They’re all the same person, and yet each has a slightly different set of experiences. The fact that the most recent copy on Marzanna is dead is the focus of the mystery—and that’s the beauty of the whole thing. Not only is the victim solving her own murder, the mystery resolves around a flaw in the system. It’s complicated without being confusing, which is what a good mystery needs.

I don’t think the characterization suffers to any great degree. There’s a fair amount of setup, yes, but it’s interesting and it’s essential to understanding what’s going on. The cast of characters is small enough to keep me from bogging down between the worldbuilding and the people inhabiting it. It’s further reduced here; we meet three of the personnel aside from Sophia, and can be sure we’ll meet the rest in later chapters.

For now, it’s enough to have Sophia’s viewpoint. We see that Johann likes to explain things, and I get the impression that Sophia, even when she isn’t just waking up from being reprinted, probably isn’t a science guy. Asha throws a spanner in the works; the relationship Sophia remembers isn’t the one Asha is in, or out of. That’s good friction to keep the wheels of story turning, and it grows out of the main science-fictional element, the technology that allows a character to come back from the dead. Then at the end we meet Junwei, and that’s our opening to the next chapter.

It works in terms of pacing. I want to know the things I’m being told. They build the world around me and give me clues as to how it works. Now I’ve got a handle on that, I’ll expect the characters to show me more of themselves. The mystery will deepen, too, I’m sure, as I learn more about what happened.

It’s a strong start, nicely and confidently written. I would definitely read on.

— Judith Tarr

Leave a Reply